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Marketers Lend Voices to Show Support for the Disabled

Efforts in advertising to pay attention to the disabled are accelerating even as the business of many marketers is slowing.

The seeming contradiction is not surprising because in harder times many consumers begin thinking about weightier matters than the size of their homes or the features on their phones.

For instance, in a survey released last week by Hill & Knowlton, part of WPP, 75 percent of respondents said that companies “need to be even more charitable and responsible to their communities” during the economic downturn.

That shift in attitudes represents an opportunity to connect with the public on less mercenary — and more altruistic — levels.

“We continually try to find ways to be part of the family dynamic, from birth to preteen-age,” said Greg Ahearn, senior vice president for marketing and e-commerce at the Toys “R” Us United States operation in Wayne, N.J., which oversees the Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us retail chains. The chains are owned by an investor consortium.

And before too long, “kids who are ‘Toys “R” Us kids,’ ” Mr. Ahearn said, quoting the retailer’s longtime ad jingle, “become parents.”

For the first time, Babies “R” Us has become part of an initiative by Toys “R” Us to raise money for Autism Speaks, an organization that helps autistic children. The initiative, which continues through May 1, carries the theme “Autism: Help Solve the Puzzle.”

The campaign is centered on a collection of photographs titled “Faces of Autism.” The photos are appearing on signs in stores and on a section of the Toys “R” Us Web site (toysrus.com/autismspeaks).

Shoppers who donate $10 to Autism Speaks can receive a reusable tote bag designed by James Hogarth, the autistic son of Mary Hogarth, senior director for creative services at Toys “R” Us.

Donations already total more than $1 million, Mr. Ahearn said. “We are actually happy with what we’ve seen” so far in contributions, he added. “Regardless of the economic environment, people are driven to help children.”

Since 2007, when Toys “R” Us first teamed up with Autism Speaks, Mr. Ahearn said, $3.7 million has been donated by shoppers, the company and the company’s charity, the Toys “R” Us Children’s Fund.

For many years, ads and catalogs for Toys “R” Us have included children who are physically disabled. Consumers with physical disabilities, younger and older, have appeared in campaigns for advertisers like Cingular Wireless, Levi Strauss, McDonald’s and Target.

On Sunday, American Airlines and the American Association of People With Disabilities announced plans to honor the best television commercials featuring what are deemed positive portrayals of the disabled. The winning spot will get free air time during the airline’s in-flight entertainment programming.

As the initiative from Toys “R” Us suggests, efforts to acknowledge and help the disabled are becoming more inclusive of those with intellectual disabilities.

That is underscored by a campaign scheduled to start on Tuesday, sponsored by the Special Olympics. The campaign, which seeks to end derogatory use of forms of the word “retard,” carries the theme “Spread the Word to End the Word”

The Special Olympics is being assisted in its pro bono campaign by BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group, and Perfect Sense Digital in Reston, Va. Their work includes posters and a Web site (r-word.org) where computer users can pledge their support “to eliminate the demeaning use of the r-word.”

The campaign was scheduled well before the Special Olympics made headlines when President Obama brought up the organization in making a wisecrack on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” about his poor bowling skills. The Special Olympics and its agency allies are trying to turn his gaffe into a teachable moment.

“Words do matter,” said Kirsten Suto Seckler, director for global marketing and awareness at the Special Olympics in Washington, even when “it’s joking about one’s own ability level in sports.”

“We learned there’s a massive need for education,” she added, “and a profound need to build respect.”

Andrew Robertson, president and chief executive at BBDO Worldwide, has been on the board of the Special Olympics for five years.

Research found the derogatory expression “is most extreme among older teenagers in high school and early college,” Mr. Robertson said, so the campaign was devised to be provocative enough to “jolt them into thinking, or rethinking, how hurtful the use of the word is.”

The posters link the word to familiar slurs about race and sexual orientation. In one poster, the slurs are written out with dashes in place of vowels but “retard” is spelled out.

“Most people who would never knowingly use disparaging terms don’t see a problem with saying ‘retard,’ ” the poster says, adding: “That must change. It’s hateful as any other slur.”

Other posters liken the phrases “That’s so retarded” and “I felt like such a retard” to offensive phrases about blacks, Jews, gays and women.

“There’s a tactical reason for this jarring approach,” said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at the BBDO North America unit of BBDO Worldwide. “If you put that word in the category of what will offend, what was a jokey throwaway becomes ‘That’s not me.’ ”

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. March 31, 2009

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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